The Worshipful Company of Stationers

The Stationers Company covered most of the publishing industry in the Elizabethan era, including printers, bookbinders, and booksellers. Not the writers, of course. We’ve always been too motley astationers crew to be organized. (The modern American self-styled ‘Authors Guild’ represents only a tiny fraction of American writers; mainly a group of vocal, yet abject, slaves of the corporate publishing industry, a bloated Leviathan that would have dismayed the most commercial of the worshipful stationers of yore.)


If you want a quick glimpse at the origin of something, go look up its name in the OED. The first definition, whose first citation comes from 1311, is “A person who sells books; a bookseller; (in the Middle Ages) esp. one licensed by a university. Occasionally also: a printer, a bookbinder.”

Well, that’s a little on the nose. Having started with my notes from Cyprian Blagden’s The Stationers Company, I was expecting the page to start with definition 2, “A person who has a market stall.” (A vendor who is stationary. A stationer. Get it?) That definition is rated Obsolete and its first citation is from 1616, which tells me Mr. Blagden was quoting an early modern source without bothering to check it out. Sigh.

A German parchmenter, 1568

The first book stalls sprang up around the universities in Oxford and Cambridge, way back in the fourteenth century. Books were made entirely by hand back then: skinning the sheep, scraping the parchment, mixing the ink, writing the book, and sewing the pages into the binding. Skilled craftsmen (and probably lots of unrecorded craftswomen) performed each step, except the writing, which could be done by any Shmoe with a quill. Although many a shmoe left the actual scribbling to a scrivener. Books were valuable objects in those handmade days, usually written on commission.

Scriveners and limners (picture people) had a craft guild in London by 1357. Guilds controlled quality by controlling the training of craftsmen. They could also thus control the supply of crafts in high demand, keeping their wages up. The stationer was primarily a shop-keeper, though he might be trained in a related craft. He arranged for the manufacture of a book to a customer’s order and he may have carried a stock of secondhand books.  

(Can’t) stop the press!

Then William Caxton printed the first book in England in 1477 and the publishing world changed forever. Now we had printers cranking out more books than a bookseller could sell over his own counter. Thus wholesaling was born and investment capital entered the trade.

The Stationer Company’s main functions were the registration of its members’ rights to publish caxton_press_wikicomparticular titles (thus securing their perpetual ownership), the admission of apprentices, and the regulation of the trade. To enforce this the Company was given powers of search throughout the country and, crucially, the printing of books was restricted to London and the two universities.

The Stationers’ Company was always one of the poorer City corporations – in 1557 it ranked fifty-sixth out of sixty-three. Book manufacture was a risky business. Few books were really necessary, apart from ABCs, law books, and Bibles. The appeal of the rest was anybody’s guess.

Bookseller was a broader term then, encompassing any publisher or retailer of books. The term ‘stationer’ was now applied generally to anyone who made, bound, or sold books. Printers printed pages, though they might also bind and sell books in their shops, thus functioning as publishers. Gradually, publishers became people with money to invest, who discovered or commissioned the work, then oversaw its production and distribution. Printers sank to the bottom of the hierarchy, becoming merely skilled workers. Well, not quite the bottom. That’s where the writers scrambled for crumbs.

The best sites for bookshops were near the doors of St Paul’s. 136 stationers and book craftsmen were located within 500 yards of the cathedral between 1300 and 1500. Dozens of booksellers traded from lock-up sheds and stalls leaning against the cathedral walls. Ballad-sellers would drape sheets over their arms and cry them through the city.

The right to copy

The Company’s other main role was ensuring that the ownership of copies was properly recorded, stationers_register_smduly enforced, and if necessary arbitrated. Entry in the Stationers’ Register was legal proof of ownership. Titles which proved to be valuable properties sooner or later found their way into the Register. In the earlier part of this period, first-time entries were usually made by a single tradesman in his own name; on his death his accumulated copies were assigned to his wife or sold to one or more successors. For less popular works there wasn’t much incentive to register, so the practice was inconsistent.

By 1557 the London trade in printed books was well established. Most of the important vernacular genres – law books, primers, psalms, sermons, school books, ballads and almanacs – were clearly identified. Little books were also popular, like scandalous ballads and pious chapbooks. These reached a nationwide readership through pedlars, fairs and markets.

Because we live in an awesome world full of wonderful people, you can look at pages from the real live Stationers Register online, digitized by the University of Toronto. It starts with many pages of accounts and lists of new apprentices. On page 74 we start seeing the books registered in 1554. My eyes landed on this one: “To John kynge these bokes folowynge Called a nose gaye / the schole house of women / and also a sacke full of newes.”

Technically, a new book had to be licensed by the Warden of the Stationers Company, independent of civil or religious authorization. But at least a third of the books known to have been printed were not entered in the register — typical of laws and their enforcement in this period. People seemed to obey laws when it was convenient, or at least more convenient than not.

Note that the copyrights belonged entirely to publishers, whether they were also printers or not. Writers had nothing to do with it. The idea that writers would have rights in their works was not unknown (Thomas Nashe complained about it), but wasn’t considered worthy of legal attention until well into the eighteenth and thus far beyond my tale. Read more at Wikipedia, if you want.

This wasn’t because everyone regarded writers with contempt; on the contrary. Writing for money was considered crass for centuries.

‘Ware the pirates!

Publishing on spec was risky. Paper was expensive throughout the period, often being imported from the Low Countries. Book-making was labor-intensive. “Those fashioning the text after it left the writer’s desk… included paper makers, printers, founders, and composers of type, copyists, and press correctors, booksellers, chapmen, general distributors, library promoters, and above all,pirate financing publishers.” (Raven, p.4.)

Then as now, big sellers supported less popular works. The printer Richard Tottell exploited his patent to print law books successfully enough to invest in poetry, like Songes and sonettes, a collection of poems by Lord Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey. Law books also raised Tottell’s family into the landowning class.

The most dependable genres were generally governed by patents or copyrights. Bitter battles were fought within the Company over the right to publish these profitable works. The inequalities that resulted provoked piracy, printing unauthorized copies and selling them cheap.

Remember that the majority of printers were clustered near St. Paul’s. There were others scattered about, but not too far: John Field, who printed Shakespeare’s poem Venus and Adonis, had his shop in Blackfriars. That’s a three-minute walk from the cathedral grounds, if you catch all the lights. This was a small world, both physically and socially, yet men could print whole books licensed to someone else, package them up, and send them forth to be sold, without anyone being the wiser.

(I am constantly bemused by the constancy of the publishing industry. All these things, including selling books at a discount to resellers and offering returns for unsold copies, began in the Tudor century.)

Crown privileges (a royal patent to publish some title or class of book) were usually acquired for life, with the right of reversion to your successors. Extension of monopolies divided the book trade still further between rich and poor. The Company had an obligation to support its members and the Crown had an interest in a healthy publishing industry, so in the 1580s solutions were devised. Poor printers were granted the right to publish books that whose copyrights had expired. Wealthy printers offered bits of work to poorer ones, like sheets of an Almanac.


According to Company rules, no books could be printed without license — the Warden’s approval. Violations were purnished by confiscating and destroying the printer’s press and type. He would also get six months imprisonment without bail. Booksellers and bookbinders got three months. The wardens had the right to search the premises of any member of the book trade, seize offensive books, and carry away offensive printing materials.

An example of a highly offensive work would be one discussing Queen Elizabeth’s possible successors. That topic was felonious, being considered a form of treason. You could get a year in prison for it. Other objectionable works attacked members of the government, which included the episcopy, which is why Martin’s Marprelate‘s works were considered treasonous.

dracoThese laws sound draconian, but they were rarely applied. The usual punishment was a fine, which went into the Company’s coffers to pay for feasts and gardeners and widows’ aid, among other things. Fines could be regarded as a cost of doing business.

From the Cambridge History of the Book: “Censorship, far from being pervasive or by the 1630s virtually totalitarian in its repressiveness, was essentially ad hoc, inconsistent, opportunistic and usually ineffective. Members of the book trade, pursuing profit, colluded with one another in the evasion of authority. Company officials impounded books in order to sell them on themselves, while other tradesmen published printed pamphlets anonymously, using shared printing and swift distribution networks to cover their tracks.  At the same time authors used indirection, allusions, parallels and fables in legitimately published works.” [I would like you all to notice the glaring lack of Oxford commas in this quotation.]

Shillings and pence

It cost sixpence to register a book and the penalties were light for not doing so. The fine depended on the content, but it could be as little as twenty pence or as much as two shillings. You could be fined four pence for keeping your shop open on a Sunday. 

Shillings from the time of Edward VI

A catch-penny pamphlet sold for two, three, or four pence and paid the writer forty shillings. Same for balladeers. A good writer, like Thomas Nashe, could get two pounds for a good pamphlet. A lesser pamphleteer would get less cash and might be paid only in copies, which he would have to flog himself.

The cheapest printed work was that penny pamphlet, which actually cost tuppence. You could stand with the groundlings at the theater for a penny, so written works had competition from oral/visual media from the beginning. Robert Greene’s wildly popular coney-catching pamphlets (explorations of the London underworld) cost three pennies apiece. You’d pool your pennies with the other apprentices in your shop and read the pamphlets aloud. 

As a last word, these books listed below are great reads, especially the old ones — Blagden and Judge. They’re filled with anecdotes about the people who inhabited the early modern book trade: their rivalries, their successes, their failures. Resources far too rich for one measly blog!


Bell, Maureen, John Barnard and D. F. McKenzie, eds. 2008. The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain Volume 4: 1557–1695. [accessed through Cambridge Histories Online via UT Austin.]

Blagden, Cyprian. 1960. The Stationers’ Company: A History, 1403-1959. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Clegg, Cyndia Susan. 1997. Press Censorship in Elizabethan England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Judge, Cyril Bathurst. 1934. Elizabethan Book Pirates. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Raven, James. 2007. The Business of Books: Booksellers and the English Book Trade 1450-1850. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Victorian: Puffery, chicanery, and fraud

The financial crisis of 2008 taught most of us more than we ever wanted to know about investment instruments and their fiendish creators. It seemed to many of us that we’d entered a new age of greed, fueled by the internet, unique to our times.

Sorry; it was neither new nor unique. Like so many things in the twenty-first century, banking and stock frauds have their roots in the Victorian era. (Probably much earlier, but that’s as far back as I’m going today.) George Robb wrote an excellent book on the subject called White-Collar Crime in Modern England. He carries the story forward into the early twentieth-century, but I’m going to stick to the nineteenth.

Robb’s book is highly recommended, especially for writers of fiction. Novelists of the time found fodder for fiction in financial fraud, as we shall see.

In the beginning

Bank of England, est. 1694

The industrial revolution “called into being a complex economy,” including a vast banking network, a commercial nexus of insurance, stocks and credit, and a complex legal system. This revolution began around 1760 and grew rapidly into the 1800s.

People began to shift their savings from costly objects (like silver plate) to investments, hoping for bigger returns than mere inflation could provide, but risking total loss from increasingly clever forms of theft.

The new industries required financing. Company shares came to replace government securities as a favorite form of investment. From the early 1800s, we see a proliferation of joint-stock companies. Industrial shares were first quoted on the (British) Stock Exchange in 1811.

Elizabeth Gaskell, 1832

Investment in a cotton factory is an important part of the plot in Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell’s popular novel North and South (1854-55.) Read it for free on a Kindle or watch the gorgeous British TV production starring Richard Armitage, streaming on Netflix. (Why don’t we have more American literature recreated in this fashion?)

Mrs. Gaskell’s story doesn’t involve fraud; it’s about the cruelties of a profit-seeking factory with a strong romantic subplot. But it does show how many people were affected by the success or failure of a single company.

The Railway Mania of 1845

The steam locomotive was developed in Britain in the early 1800s. The first inter-city passenger railway, the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, opened in 1830. Can you imagine the excitement of riding on that train?

Trains in that period traveled at 17 mph. A horse running without burdens can gallop at 15 mpg. People must have been hanging on to things, dizzied by the landscape rushing past, reveling in the breeze ruffling through their long moustaches…

Steam locomotive ca. 1830

People also started building railways hither, thither, and yon. Britain, Europe, North America, and on around the world. Lots of railways actually got built. Many more were proposed and funded, only to end in bankruptcy — or never actually to begin.

The Railway Mania of the 1840s was one of history’s great investment bubbles, like the Dutch tulip fever of the early seventeenth century (watch the Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan) or the dot-com bubble of the late twentieth. 

People go literally mad for certain things sometimes. Fever is exactly the right word. Everyone desperately wants a piece of the action. As more people buy stocks, the prices rise, until they hit the inevitable ceiling — the limits of actual capacity or production.

Everyone wanted to get into the game, but few people understood either trains or stocks. A full third of the proposed railways were never built. Companies failed from bad planning, poor execution, or outright chicanery — no construction was ever actually intended.

Laws were passed not to protect the innocent investor, but to protect the corporations. The Limited Liability Act of 1855 made it easier for shysters to walk away from obligations to their shareholders. Anything you’d invested in that company was simply lost.

Schemes to build railways in faraway places captured the imaginations and the savings of the British in the Age of Empire. Trains would make it possible to bring civilization to every corner of the globe! Here’s a movie that isn’t about fraud, but it is about building a railway in Africa in 1898: The Ghost and the Darkness, starring Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer. Scary! Lions eat everybody.

What’s a life worth in today’s market?

From an article at

Life insurance was invented in the late eighteenth century, also in England, at least in the form that we know it. By the middle of the next century, it was providing another fertile field for fraud. There were no regulations governing advertising in this era, so companies could say whatever they liked.

What the West Middlesex Life and Fire Assurance Company liked to say was that their holdings were backed by the Bank of England to the extent of one million pounds. They listed famous people as investors (probably peers.) They attracted hordes of small investors hoping to provide for their wives and children in the event of an untimely death. The company directors collected the cash and then fled the country in 1840 with L250,000.

Investment fraud was so rampant novelists had a field day with it, like William Thackeray in The History of Samuel Titmarsh and the Great Hoggarty Diamond; Charles Dickens in Martin Chuzzlewit.


Puffed up and dangerous

Sharp company promoters would puff up their companies, making inflated claims. There were no  regulations, no control whatsoever. Directors published fraudulent accounts and paid unearned dividends out of capital so it looked like profits. Then they’d run a campaign for more shareholders to get more capital. Here we have the origins of the pyramid scheme.

Companies would create fictitious votes or proxies to outvote bona fide shareholders. Directors operated at a distance, through agents or under assumed names; thus managing several fraudulent companies at a time.

Directors might secretly use investor money to buy their own shares to drive up the price, to attract more investors. Subscription lists were swelled with phony signatures. Railway secretaries paid poor people to sign for large blocks of shares.

The Joint Stock Companies Act of 1856 stated that to incorporate a company needed only to submit a Memorandum of Association to the Registrar containing the name and object of the company, the type of liability (limited or not,) the amount of nominal capital, and the total number of shares. The minimum was a mere seven people holding one share each. There was no mandatory audit at any time.

South Sea Bubble cartoon

Companies didn’t get much auditing, internal or external. Prof. Robb reminds us of the Victorian ideal of individualism, in which each man is personally responsible for his own life, fate, and actions. “Many Victorians made no distinction between misadventure and malfeasance. Nineteenth-century England was a society which worshiped success and vilified failure.”

Today we still covertly admire men (mostly) who make fortunes through barely-legal financial manipulations. Donald Trump springs to mind, along with Charles Keating and the other villains of the 1980’s savings and loan crisis. Remember Enron? There’s been a scam-fueled crisis every decade since the South Sea Bubble of 1720. How do we not learn our lessons?

(The South Sea Bubble was a mystifying scheme to consolidate the national debt at a time when England was – yet again – at war with Spain. Many fortunes were lost and humble folks ruined, stimulating many cartoons and lampoons and disgusted commentary by the likes of Daniel Defoe and Sir Isaac Newton, who said, “I can calculate the movement of the stars, but not the madness of men.” Indeed not.)

Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now revolves around the financial frauds of the 1870s. There’s a fabulous Masterpiece Theatre version starring David Suchet whose cast includes of all our favorite Masterpiece actors, including my favorite actress, Shirley Henderson.

Pity the fools

Because the fools are us. I remember my mother’s lament in the 1980’s: “If you can’t put your money in mutual funds, what can you do?” The days of investing in silver plate are long gone.

Stock certificate from an actual silver mine

As today, in the nineteenth century the bulk of shareholdings were owned by the middle class. However, more people back then were unable to earn their living through work, thanks to a more restrictive culture. Widows, spinsters, clergymen, retired military men, and middle-class seniors, relied on annuities for their income. They were often struggling to maintain their social status and were the easiest prey for the fraudsters.

As today, financial instruments were too complex for laypersons to understand. They might not have had credit-swap derivatives, but they had discounts, transfers, debentures, and arbitrage. They were obliged to rely on experts for advice, as are we. They imagined that the name of a respected bank or famous person implied that somebody with knowledge and integrity had evaluated the offering — as do we.

Robb quotes Herbert Spencer, writing in The Edinburgh Review: “Is it any wonder that the wide-spread, ill-informed, unorganized body of shareholders standing severally alone, and each preoccupied with his daily affairs, should be continually out-generaled by the comparatively small but active, skillful, combined body opposed to them, whose very occupation is at stake in gaining the victory?”

Robb’s book is so rich, I’ve barely scratched the surface at 1700 words. Find it, read it. Like most academic books, it’s priced too high for purchase ($44.99 for a paperback) but you can probably find it through Interlibrary Loan. I didn’t even get to the mining scams at the end of the century. I’ll save telegraph fraud – a whole topic in itself – for another post.

The book contains enough legal crime to fuel my whole Moriarty series, whose premise is that my heroes must go outside the law to seek justice where the law can’t reach. Moriarty Meets His Match could be considered an exploration of what happens when company promoters are free to make whatever claims they please to defraud their investors. Or not.


Robb, George. 1992. White-Collar Crime in Modern England. Cambridge University Press.

Robb, George and Nancy Erber. 1999. Disorder in the Court: Trials and Sexual Conflict at the Turn of the Century. New York: New York University Press.

Robb, George. 2009. “Ladies of the ticker: Women, investment, and fraud in England and America, 1850-1930.” In Henry, Nancy and Cannon Schmitt, eds. Victorian Investments: New Perspectives on Finance and Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. pp. 120-140.

Robb, George. 2012. “Before Madoff and Ponzi: 19th Century business frauds,” Phi Kappa Phi Forum, pp. 7-9.

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